Garden Notes: Waking up

Plants and insects are signaling the start of spring all over the Island.


The perfume of May seems to be saying, “Wake up, you sleepy insects!” Early irises are blooming, and everyone is astonished apparently by the flowering lilacs across the Island. The May transformation is here, seemingly overnight from brown to green, always swift and surprising, with fragrant lilacs and lilies of the valley welcome whenever they occur.

According to archived information from the Arnold Arboretum about its signature event, Lilac Sunday, the first Lilac Sunday was announced in the Boston Globe May 25, 1908, and thenceforth for Memorial Day. More recently, the event has been brought forward to coincide with Mother’s Day. This year, due to public health concerns, Lilac Sunday per se is cancelled: viewers are encouraged to come and enjoy it at any time, now.

Here on the Vineyard, the earliest plants and shrubs to leaf out are usually the non-natives. Vineyard Haven in April, with its preponderance of Norway maples as one drives down the hill toward Main Street, seems like a different plant hardiness zone.

Settled weather conditions are still a way off. Fluctuations in the weather are on-going; old sheets, floating row cover, bottomless milk jugs, and hotcaps kept close at hand are insurance for the cautious gardener, who hopes to not have to use them. Soil temperature is at the low end of the warm range, 62F degrees, in my garden.

In undisturbed native woodland, the thicket-y undergrowth provides cover and much support to birds and wildlife. It consists of viburnum, lowbush blueberry, huckleberry and dangleberry, and greenbrier of several species, an important winter food of wildlife. The undergrowth is the first to flush green, “normally” around mid-May; clumps of green within it earlier are invasives such as barberry, Asian bush honeysuckles, multiflora rose, and burning bush. And sad to say, more and more invasives are appearing.

In the garden

A delightful early spring ephemeral, pulmonaria, is blooming now. Although individual plants may be short-lived, seedlings spring up in unexpected places and carry on their eye-catching display of silver spotted foliage and short trusses of pink-aging-to-blue flowers. Heavy duty cleanup and mulching limits these and other self-sowers, such as hellebores, hesperis, lunaria, digitalis, and cyclamen.

Cabbage white butterflies, undeniably very pretty, have been active for over a month. Their larvae are injurious to cole crops such as cabbage, broccoli, and kale. Start a weekly spray schedule with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), usually sufficient for control. (Hand-picking caterpillars is an option too.) Cut off bloom stalks of rhubarb.

Pinch Perennials: for stockier growth, less staking, and retarded bloom times, pinch out the growing tips of perennials such as salvias, Montauk daisies, asters, platycodon, garden ‘mums, and phlox; or cut back by about one third. Known also as the Chelsea Chop, this is done to perennial plants used in displays at the famed Chelsea Flower Show, to give them another round of bloom and renewed chance for sale.

Lankier plants, especially tall-growing phlox and various members of the chrysanthemum family, grow into tidier mounds, with less tendency to split open under the weight of long stems topped with large flowerheads, if they are pinched once or twice before it is time for them to start forming their flower buds. We usually pinch Montauk daisies several times to produce neat green mounds, covered with large white daisy flowers as a last hurrah for Columbus Day weekend gardens.

Plants such as daylilies, bulb lilies, dianthus, and irises derive no benefit from pinching. However, regular deadheading benefits almost all blooming plants.

Prune forsythia and other spring flowering shrubs now, any time up until the summer solstice, June 21. Remove the three oldest forsythia canes at or close to the crown, to keep plants renewed and flowering profusely. However, postpone major pruning of lilacs until after lilac borer breeding season ends. It is okay to prune any summer or fall blooming shrubs (e.g., clethra, PG hydrangeas, abelia) now, up until solstice too, because they bloom on new wood.

Inspired innovators

Masanobu Fukuoka, the author of “The One Straw Revolution,” was a Japanese citrus farmer, known for developing a natural farming philosophy that up-ended many 20th-century agricultural tenets. His work is an interesting topic for those looking to grow with fewer inputs and with a more “natural” approach, although to western eyes it may seem entirely counter-intuitive. No composting. No fertilizer. No till. No pesticide. No herbicide. 

From Wikipedia: “The system is based on the recognition of the complexity of living organisms that shape an ecosystem and deliberately exploiting it. Fukuoka saw farming not just as a means of producing food but as an aesthetic and spiritual approach to life, the ultimate goal of which was “the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” (

Fukuoka is celebrated as one of the foundational thinkers of organic and natural growing. From his Wikipedia page: “In the international development of the organic farming movement, Fukuoka is considered to be amongst the five giant personalities who inspired the movement along with Austrian Rudolf Steiner, German-Swiss Hans Müller, Lady Eve Balfour in the United Kingdom and J.I. Rodale in the United States.”

In horticulture, a figure of comparable philosophy is Cassian Schmidt, who has put his stamp on the justly famous Hermannshof public gardens of Weinheim, Germany. This public garden has pioneered a naturalistic, low input, and low maintenance style of gorgeous, floriferous planting that today has influenced European and North American garden design and planting.

Schmidt is developing habitat-based low maintenance perennial planting mixes and effective maintenance concepts, which are based on ecological strategies and the establishment of permanent low maintenance gardens. The YouTube link is an informative visit to Hermannshof with Cassian Schmidt. (

Community Solar Greenhouse

The Island’s Community Solar Greenhouse, one of its cooperative gems, is open for plant sales. 119 New York Ave., Oak Bluffs. 508-693-2019



  1. Thank you Abigail for a great article! I have never heard of the Chelsea Chop! You must be a Master gardener! I just discovered your column and love all the new tips I’m getting! I’m in concord mass and coming this weekend to MV for a visit. One of my favorite places on earth. Curious to see if blue hydrangeas have a lot of dead wood this year like mine. Can’t wait for that fresh ocean air! Enjoy Abby! Michelle

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